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Anand Vardhan

Adipurush row: Should artists have the license to depict epic characters as they please?

Villainy, for all its evil designs, is a lot of work. The nature of the sinister work doesn’t go unnoticed in how most Indians approach the great epics of the land. In popular imagination, such works are often tied to the narrative purpose.

This has meant that far from being monochromatic, the key characters in epics such as Ramayan are viewed in different hues. The epic’s prime antagonist, Ravan, for instance, can draw on subtexts to outgrow his 10-headed devilish mien. Which leaves much space for a more rounded reception of him and considerate understanding of the symbolism that he comes with – the perils of overlooking the satvik (the equilibrium of moral attitudes) for the trappings of the tamasic (the delusional pursuits in the dark).

When pitted against protagonist Lord Ram’s divine cause of principled conduct and righteous action, the Shiva-worshiping scholar-king of Lanka’s demonic turn is seen more in the vice of arrogance and self-destructive ego. It’s rarely viewed as descending into outright diabolic forms. Besides this, there is the challenge of geography. In some parts, his Shiva-worshiping devout and erudite nature and sometimes even regional identity are evoked to downplay his dreadful side.

This could be one of the reasons why Ravan’s portrayal in the teaser of the upcoming Bollywood film Adipurush has not gone down well with a section of the public. The buzz cut, the beard and the fierce eyes evoking the imagery of a barbarian ruler are unlikely to fit neatly into what can be called the memory of visual representation. The shared frame of Ravan’s countenance, while performing his vile deeds, haven’t generally gone beyond his haughty laughter reverberating through the stage at thousands of Ramlilas performed each year.

That’s also the image that a generation has carried from Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of the character in Ramanand Sagar’s TV adaptation of the epic in the late 80s, the most watched television show in Indian history. Even in its rerun during the Covid lockdown in 2020, the first four episodes alone were watched by 170 million viewers.

All of this has gone into the making of a visual reference for an epic which Valmiki first wrote between the fifth and first centuries BCE. Since then the epic, and hundreds of its local versions, have left various clues for visualising the different characters of the narrative in their own ways. It also means such visualisation can spawn in its own ways too.

In Ramcharitmanas, the iconic Awadhi version of the epic, Tulsidas writes in the Sundarkand section, “Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi, prabhu murat dekhi tin taisi.” The way one approaches the Lord or whatever be one’s sentiments, one sees the Lord solely in that image. In the process, Tulsidas makes an eloquent case for the freedom of imagining the deity in any form as well as for the liberty in interpreting it. Can that be extended to assume that, looking through Tulsi’s prism, one might have different ways of visualising  the demonic ways of  Ravan – the various forms of the antagonist’s tamasic tilt? At the very least, these possibilities face no roadblocks in how Tulsidas saw it.

A wide range of portrayals would have been approved even by the ancient Indian texts on performing arts. The Natya Shastra, Bharat Muni’s Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts which is believed to have been written between 200 BCE and 200 CE, has a chapter on gods defending the idea of freedom of artistic expression, and by extension, the right of depiction. Interestingly, the chapter talks about the gods’ intervention when demons were offended by their portrayal in a play. The treatise offers a theory of aesthetics in performing arts, evoking eight different moods and emotions – hasya (comic), sringara (sensual or romantic), rudra (angry), bhayanak (fearsome), karuna (compassionate), vibhatsam (disgusting), veer (heroic), and adbhuta (wondrous). In reflecting on artistic expressions for such moods, the treatise had unfolded a wider canvas of dramatic arts which was alive to many possibilities.

It isn’t far-fetched then to assume that the contemporary attempts at portraying Ravan, irrespective of their merit, can find defence in what Natya Shastra envisaged for performing arts more than 2,000 years ago. That, however, shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that visual referencing in popular culture constitutes a shared frame of Ravan that militates against diabolic variants. The effigies of Ravan burning in thousands of Dussehra grounds would suggest that India’s relationship with his villainy is quite complex. Villainy, in many ways, takes a lot of work to unravel.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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